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Top Podcast of the Year: Ungodly Introspection in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Truth in Love Episode 363

What is the difference between godly and ungodly introspection? How can those who struggle with OCD be freed from an enslaving, ungodly introspection?

Dec 26, 2022

Dale Johnson: And as promised last week, we have back with us Dr. Keith Palmer, who is the associate pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury, Texas. He’s been in that capacity since July of 2002. I’ll remind you that he and his wife Lisa have been married since 2000. You see, you did that really well, Keith. You married in 2000. That way, I did the same thing that way every year, you know, exactly the date. 

Keith Palmer: I know. All you got to do is look at the calendar and go, yeah, that’s right. What year is it? 

Dale Johnson: I love that. All right. So, we’re smarter than we look, Keith. That’s right. 

Keith Palmer: That’s right. Yeah, and we outmarried ourselves. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right. Keith and Lisa have three kids—Alan, Amy, and Eric. I want to jump into this, Keith. If we can, just talking about OCD, we talked about this last week, this issue of idolizing certainty. This week, I want to sort of change it in a little bit different direction. And listen, we can be honest that there are varying degrees of these tendencies of OCD. There are lots of variables when we talk about this issue of OCD. One of the things that I want us to hone in on—is this issue of introspection. That is certainly a never-ending story, a never-ending path, if you will; in the story of those who struggle with OCD is this issue of introspection. And so, give us just a brief reminder of last week’s OCD basics, and then I want to ask you a question that leads us into introspection. 

Keith Palmer: Sure, thanks, Dale! Good to be back with you. OCD, we’re thinking about a cycle of hardened behavior from a biblical standpoint. It’s a cycle of heart and behavior. The obsessions would be these intrusive, unwanted, reoccurring thoughts, and those thoughts fuel various fears and that creates a mental distress, a difficulty within. And then, the person will pursue relief through the second component, which is the compulsions, repetitive behaviors, rituals, mental exercises. And, of course, those compulsions are designed to bring some sort of relief from the distress that the obsessions create. And left in that mode, it creates this hopeless cycle. So, that’s kind of an overview of OCD. There are various types. The classic one is, I left the stove on, I got to go check it, I left the door open, I need to go and make sure it’s locked. But there are others, too, things like a fear of un-orderliness. So, I’m always organizing or a fear of germs. So, I’m always washing, or, you know, a fear of throwing things away, I might need something, and that leads to this hoarding idea. Those are some ideas of what we see in the OCD-type behavior. 

Dale Johnson: Now, again, this is mental health month, the month of May. And I want us to think about these issues that are quite prevalent in the area of mental health. One of the things that I think most people forget about relative to OCD is it wasn’t like a switch was flipped all the sudden one day, and now I find myself dominated by these obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors that I’m doing. This often happens over a long period of time with patterns, and these patterns sort of begin with this detailed introspection about a person’s life, and then patterns are built up with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. So, what role, Keith, if you’re looking at this issue of OCD, what role does introspection play in the lives of those who struggle with these obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors?

Keith Palmer: I think introspection is usually a key feature of all of this. People are looking inside them, and that’s where they’re focusing on those thoughts, those fears. They’re constantly re-evaluating, “Is this thought I had, Is that true to who I really am?” “Does that make me guilty of what the thought represents?” So, it really is a key feature, and introspection is tricky because, you know, we all introspect, and actually, God commands us to introspect. Psalm 139 demonstrates the good quality of asking God to examine our hearts, or when Paul tells the Corinthians to take every thought captive, or in his second letter, to test ourselves to see if we’re really believers. Those are all good things. So, introspection is a good thing when it is guided by biblical principles, but it can, of course, turn into something that’s ungodly and unhelpful. And that’s really what we see in OCD. It is this introspection that becomes a constant. It’s almost like those programs on your computer or apps on your phone that are just always running in the background. And that’s what’s going on is just there’s this constant introspection of evaluation, or trying to get to the bottom of it, or trying to isolate the fear, trying to determine one’s innocence if there’s been a thought that was of an inappropriate nature. And that just feeds this cycle of OCD hopelessness. 

Dale Johnson: Now, I want to go into a little bit more detail of what you just mentioned because what we’re talking about is introspection in and of itself is not necessarily a terrible thing. But we want to distinguish between that which is godly and ungodly. Even as you were talking, you were talking about Psalm 139. You are giving examples in the New Testament of where we’re commanded to examine ourselves to see whether we’re in the faith and that sort of thing. I thought of Matthew chapter 7 where we’re not to, you know, take the speck out of someone else’s eye, but to look at the log in our own. There are calls in the Scripture to do this introspection. And so, I want you to help us to distinguish the difference now between godly and ungodly introspection. 

Keith Palmer: Yeah, I think that’s a key feature of helping people because introspection is not the problem. It’s a misguided and ungodly introspection that creates the problem. So yeah, the passages that you and I have already mentioned clearly demonstrate that there is a godly introspection. One of the tests that we apply to distinguish godly introspection from ungodly introspection is what it produces. According to the Bible, in the passages that you and I have mentioned, and there are many others, we recognize that godly introspection is meant to bring conviction. It’s meant to bring godly sorrow, repentance, a trust in Christ for forgiveness and change, clarity, and again, 2 Corinthians 7, Psalm 32, Psalm 139. All of those would demonstrate that. So, the point is there is godly fruit. There is Christ-like evidence at the conclusion of godly introspection. So that kind of distinguishes it.

When we’re talking about ungodly introspection, what we’re seeing is not just a lack of that godly fruit but actually the presence of much ungodly fruit. So, we see the provocation of sinful fear. We see the neglect of actual spiritual God-ordained duties. We see a withdrawing from community. All these features would demonstrate whatever I’m doing in introspection is not producing that sort of God-revealed fruit that the Bible says and that godly introspection should do that. So just some examples might be helpful. So, when we think about ungodly introspection, we’re thinking about someone who has an intrusive thought, and they want to know, “Did I experience any pleasure in that thought?” Because that’s going to render them either guilty or not guilty of their mind. Or “What were my real motives?” And just maybe a footnote here, Dale, the introspection actually becomes in some cases, a form of the compulsion. So, I have this thought, I have this fear, I have this intrusive situation, and I turn to introspection, to ungodly introspection, as my main compulsive remedy. I’m doing introspection to try to bring relief from the distress that I experienced from the ungodly, intrusive thoughts. So, these are some of the questions—”Have I fully understood my heart? Did I do everything to mitigate a negative consequence? Did I perfectly communicate my intent? Have I confessed every and all sin? Could have I committed the unpardonable sin?” So those are the things that fuel the wrong type of introspection as a person tries to find relief.

I guess two elements that really give away this ungodly introspection. One is it’s not guided by or informed by the Gospel. Jesus is not present here. The sufficiency of Christ and His work are not a part of this exercise. And the second thing that I already alluded to this is that it just feeds and fuels further intrusive thoughts. In other words, you have all this ungodly fruit rather than moving toward a place of spiritual growth and righteous fruit, as the Bible would reveal. One of the things that I discovered when working with many people with this is that the way you kill an intrusive thought is not by dwelling on it but by dismissing it and replacing it, according to Ephesians chapter 4 and other passages. So that’s really the key to see that the way I work through this is not by spending time on the intrusive thought with ungodly introspection but actually dismissing it and replacing it with biblical truth. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that truth of 2 Corinthians 10:3 through six, that we take the thoughts captive, and with them, we not just take it captive because then if you’re just dwelling on that thought, you’re making it obedient to Christ, which is consistent with the pattern of Ephesians 4 that you mentioned. Also, in Colossians chapter 3, the same pattern is mentioned of put off, put to death therefore whether is earthly in you and then interestingly enough in verse 15, he says, “Let the peace of Christ rule your heart.” And we’re not allowing the peace of Christ that has already been settled in our justification before God to rule our hearts. They’re still holdouts; if you will, they’re still areas in our hearts that we’re leaving open, or as if the peace of Christ has not dominated that area.

Even as you’re talking, I’m thinking of the issue of justification, and I think about that in terms of salvation. Justification in my feelings. “What am I allowing to justify myself?” And oftentimes, the person who struggles with this level of introspection, they’re thinking that there’s a certain type of thought or something they can do to settle their heart. That’s never the measuring stick that we see in Scripture. We’re never to be driven by those things, which we accomplished, then we become the object of our hope in what we’re pursuing. Can we do it enough? Or can we do it this way? This way or that way? And the Bible never claims that we’re going to be perfect, even until we die and until glorification. And we’re not going to be perfect. So, we’re pursuing something that, I would argue, biblically is not even possible on this side of heaven. And so, yeah, I think the object of our hope becomes very paramount here. Am I trusting in Christ as my true hope? Psalm 46, is God my true Refuge here, as I introspect? Am I measuring myself over and against the Scripture? And even if I see a weakness, can I glory in the work that Christ has done? That’s such a key thought.

Now we’ve been talking sort of, you know, in the realm of theoretical to some degree. And now, I want to bring this down to the practical, if we can, just help our counselors help those who struggle with this issue of deep introspection. What are some of the practical steps to help those who are engaged in unhelpful, and we would even say ungodly introspection?

Keith Palmer: Yeah, and of course, this is going to vary depending on the actual manifestation. But yeah, just some ideas here. As I mentioned a moment ago, one main strategy is to dismiss the intrusive thought, not engage it. Engaging it is what feeds this hopeless cycle, and so dismissing, putting off, to use biblical language, replacing it with Christ and His Word. And along with that, you know, only confess, clear, actual sin, not potential sin, or possible sin or theoretical sort of sin. That’s the thing; we’re not called to confess things that we actually haven’t engaged in as sin. And usually, an OCD, the confession that is needed is not related to the obsessive thought. It’s related to the area of pride, self-focus, and an unbelief in the Gospel, not a confession of the intrusive thought.

It’s also good to remember that in clear, where actual biblical confession is needed, that it’s the sufficiency of Jesus, not the thoroughness or the perfection of the confession, that brings forgiveness and cleansing at the verdict of no condemnation. So, sometimes the focus is in the wrong place there. And as we talked about last week, it really can amount to a denial of the sufficiency of Jesus. And this is pride. These are real strugglers, right? I mean, they are really under distress; they’re exhausted. So, there’s real suffering here, for sure. But underneath all that is this subtle form of Pride that says, “I’m going to be the determiner of what’s really true, and I’m going to rest in that instead of the sufficiency of Jesus and submitting to His verdicts instead of our own.” So that’s huge. That’s a lot. There’s a big battle to work out there.

Along with that, maybe some counterintuitive biblical wisdom. Sometimes we need to help people see that they’re actually more wicked than they actually know. Meaning, “Oh, I might have done this, and that would make me a horrible person. I might have thought this, and that would make me a horrible person.” And look, you know, we read the Bible, and Romans 3 says, “There is none righteous. Not even one. There’s no one who understands. There’s no one who seeks after God. We’ve all turned aside.” And it’s like, you know, I love you brother, I love you sister, but we’re actually way worse than we realize, and yet Jesus is still sufficient, right? That’s the second half of Romans 3.

Be wise in crafting homework assignments that require inward reflection, and usually, in homework assignments in biblical counseling, we’re going to assign things like, take your thoughts captive, or confess your sin. But we want to be careful because sometimes giving OCD strugglers assignments that require inward reflection actually puts fuel to the fire. So, I found that utilizing external help, like a journal, can help keep godly reflection from morphing into an internal, sort of introspective obsession where it becomes ungodly in that way. So just be careful in your homework assignments. And as a part of that, engage a trusted friend or family member or counselor, or pastor to help the struggler evaluate whether or not confession or introspection is really truly appropriate. Having that outside party making the determination can be a really good help when the person is so consumed with this that they’re not able to make good judgments all the time. Although a footnote on that too, sometimes talking with somebody can actually become another compulsion strategy. So, we want, we want to be careful with that. Finally, just rehearsing the gospel. I think Milton Vincent’s Gospel Primer is a great resource just to remind ourselves every day that godly introspection is built from the gospel. It has to be guided by the gospel, and it has to lead the change that is fueled by the gospel. And then to just dismiss any and all other efforts at introspection until that gospel can be fully embraced. 

Dale Johnson: That’s super helpful, especially the part, the practical wisdom that you’re giving our counselors about just pay attention to the homework that you’re giving, understand the person well enough to know that some of the homework you can give actually contribute to this obsession, and this compulsion of behaviors. They may feel that it’s empowering or whatever to its next stage to help them to conquer their feelings, and just be cautious in the ways in which you give homework. Now, Keith, I fail to do this last week. I wanted to do this week briefly if we can. But just some resources, obviously, even in two podcasts, we can’t cover the things that we would like to talk about and all the nuances and variabilities of the issues of OCD. Some resources that you can think of that would be helpful for further study for our listeners. 

Keith Palmer: Sure. At our own ACBC Training Center here, the Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship, we have several articles. We also have several workshops that the audio for that are all free on our website— My good friend, Brent Osterberg, who’s a pastor in our area, and part of our team here, he and I have done several different lectures on this and he’s written several articles. So, I refer our listeners to that. Hopefully, those will be a blessing, and I think, Brent and I were both really helped by the work of Mike Emlet who has done a little booklet. Those counseling booklets that we appreciate so much. His booklet on OCD, which was published by P&R. And then, he also has a very helpful article in the Journal of Biblical Counseling. Actually, several articles, and there was one that was published recently on the Scrupulosity, which is the sort of religious brand of OCD. So, I think Mike Emlet’s work has been really helpful as well. So, those would be some resources that might help our listeners. 

Dale Johnson: Thank you, brother. I really appreciate this. I know this is going to be helpful to so many who listen, those who counsel, and those who struggle with these types of obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors. So, I appreciate your work on this.